Borders first became a “thing” with the Treaty of Westphalia, serving to clarify which polities were under which prince’s rule of law. The prince’s government had complete sovereignty over the people in his territory, which was demarcated by borders. In the tense and warlike environment that was Europe at the time, borders also signified the territories that the prince had a responsibility to protect. Thus, the foundation of borders is intimately tied to the concept of “responsibility” and a state’s duty to prioritize the people in its polity.
Do immigrants infringe on a state’s responsibility to its own people? And what does “responsibility” entail?
I think the first issue is differentiating between financial and protective responsibility. I think neither economics nor a state’s financial responsibility to immigrants entering the country is the foremost issue of immigration, at least in the United States; the financial responsibility that I’m referring to is the responsibility to maintain current levels of financial well-being/the same standard of living. I’m tentatively asserting this because 1) all of the reports I’ve read on immigration have generally found that immigrants have a negligible if not positive impact on the overall economy, especially for skilled workers, even as they may undercut wages for those without a high school degree, and 2) children from poor immigrant families are equally likely to use welfare as those from nonimmigrant families, and undocumented immigrant families in particular contribute much more to state and local governments than they take from them (also, wouldn’t it be easier to restrict welfare rather than immigration overall at the border?). Additionally, a 2017 Gallup poll found that more Americans think immigrants help rather than hurt the economy. So yes, of course elected officials would understandably consider the economic needs of their constituents over those outside their jurisdictions. But when economics is a nonissue for most Americans when it comes to discussions on immigration, I don’t think questions of financial obligation are particularly relevant because, at least economically, the state isn’t obliging anyone who’s entering this country from across the border. Immigrants (even refugees) provide way, way more to the American government in the form of taxes, etc. than they take from it in the form of welfare, immigration and humanitarian services, etc. Maybe they’re obliging us.
It seems to me that security and governance are greater issues for Americans than economics; the precedent of protective responsibility set under the Treaty of Westphalia is still our central concern today in discussions on immigration. In the context of the travel ban and the sharp cuts to legal immigration, I’d certainly assert this case for refugees and asylum seekers, but I’d also argue the same for all immigrants, especially those who are undocumented. Per a 2016 Pew Research poll, just 35% of Trump supporters say undocumented immigrants take jobs U.S. citizens would like to have, and a third say that they are less hard working and honest than citizens. However, 50% think undocumented immigrants in the U.S. “are more likely than American citizens to commit serious crimes.” Fears of what immigrants could pose to national security are particularly heightened in the European context with the Syrian refugee crisis, but I think they’re equally applicable here. Fears of an undermining to our national security and safety are coded in everything from John Kelly’s statement that Mexicans are “overwhelmingly rural people” who would not “easily assimilate into the United States” to the seemingly insensitive accusations raised by the individual I interviewed in my first blog post, who argued that immigrant youth are “have cognitive dissonance and are prone to joining gangs because of it.” 63% of conservatives consider Iranian and Syrian refugees to be a “major threat” to the country. Even economist Nathan Smith, one of the biggest proponents of opening America’s borders, admits that although entirely open borders would result in a doubling of GDP, American culture and society as we know it would disintegrate.
Thus, when we ask questions like, “Is America responsible for letting in refugees?”, the word “responsibility” is loaded with a lot of potential meanings. Is it financial responsibility, i.e. in the form ofwelfare? Or is it some type of vaguer “responsibility” for the problems some believe they could potentially wield against us, like criminality, drugs, or gang violence? I think for many people, i.e. the Trump supporters mentioned above, it is the latter. When considering letting in refugees––and immigrants in general––the ultimatum is whether that person is “safe,” not whether it’s necessarily our obligation or responsibility to “help” them (especially considering that in the long-term, refugees actually benefit us), and I think it is this reasoning that led the attorney I interviewed in my last blog post to argue that we should only be working to keep unsafe people out.
The type of responsibility we’re dealing with is the Westphalian version: the responsibility to protect. So when you ask if it is immoral to argue that we should preference the well being of people within our polity in conversations on immigration, I’d argue that 1) yes, per the historical reasoning of creating borders, one should preference those in their polity, but 2) the only type of well being that should really concern us, especially in the US, is security/safety. This is where I think the reasoning becomes more context dependent, especially as numbers become increasingly unhelpful in determining whether someone is “safe” or “unsafe”. It’s difficult to determine if someone is prone to joining a gang or becoming a terrorist without relying on racial stereotypes because so many psychological factors play into the ultimate decision.
When determining the relationship between security and immigration, I think it’s worthwhile to consider terrorism, extremism, and gang violence separately from generalized crime. This is because the latter is a more apparent nonissue than the former: whether it’s Germany or the United States, immigration is actually linked to decreased crime rates. A 2015 peer-reviewed study from the National Academy of Sciences concludes, “far from immigration increasing crime rates, studies demonstrate that immigrants and immigration are associated inversely with crime.” Nonetheless, crime rates do increase from the first to the second generation, and I will concede there’s little understanding of the role of undocumented immigrants in particular, since state authorities and census workers rely on offenders to self-report their status. Regardless, the overall consensus is that with immigrants comes a reduction in crime, not a boosting of it.
The issue of extremism is a grayer area. In the case of Muslim migration, the question of safety is particularly unclear because it’s really, really difficult to tell if someone is prone to becoming a terrorist. Additionally, the relationship between extremist activity and immigration is difficult to assess because there are so few terrorist attacks in the first place, regardless of whether that migration is from south of the border or from Syria. Looking at the European example only complicates this question: although Germany admitted approximately 1 million refugees in 2015 and faced a subsequent spat of terrorist attacks, it’s also worth noting that the German government has emphasized that the risk of someone being a perpetrator of terrorism is no greater amongst the refugee population than amongst the general population. Even jihadists themselves have told investigators that ISIS wants to recruit within Germany and in the UK, rather than having foreign terrorists infiltrate said countries by presenting themselves at the border as asylum seekers. I also did a small survey of the data myself and found that the UK and France have suffered many more terrorist attacks (France has endured 17 Islamist terrorist attacks since 2014) than more significantly refugee-friendly countries such as Germany and Sweden (the former had 9 terrorist attacks since 2014, while the latter only had 1). At least in the European context, the risk of extremism that migrants pose is pretty tenuous. However, I acknowledge that the historical “newness” of the situation and the lack of conclusive data make this the arena where one may face the biggest moral dilemma, especially when considering the admittance of potential refugees.
Nonetheless, the type of immigration that I’ve largely been referencing in my previous blog posts and that largely concerns the United States today is that which comes from south of the border, not from majority Muslim countries. Muslim foreign nationals are only about 0.6% of the US population, but that number jumps to 6.2% when looking at foreign-born Hispanics. Knowing the similarities between terrorism and gang violence, there’s a more relevant question regarding immigrant-linked extremism in the US: is Latin American immigration linked to gang violence? As in the case of recruitment by ISIS, citizens––not undocumented immigrants––are more likely to be affiliated with gangs, though precise numbers are unavailable (in Suffolk County, MA, 39 out of 156 gang members were unaccompanied minors). Additionally, although ICE operations targeting gang members have led to arrests of individuals who arrived as undocumented minors, it’s unclear if they joined gangs after coming to the United States or already had an affiliation prior to entry. In 2012, only 159 children apprehended at the border were suspected or confirmed to have gang affiliations (some activists even warn against conflating “suspected” and “confirmed” especially as ICE has occasionally been unable to substantiate its allegations of gang affiliation) out of a total of about 45,000 kids arriving that year. However, unaccompanied minors are targets for MS-13 recruitment. Quoting Politifact:
Scott Michael Conley, a detective in the Chelsea Police Department in Massachusetts, said that while the majority of unaccompanied minors were fleeing violence, “the smallest group of unaccompanied minors are ‘homeboys’ being sent by the gang to bolster the ranks of MS cliques operating in the United States.”
Conley presented a recruitment scenario when gang members and minors who are not in gangs travel in the same group to the United States. Gang members gather information from non-gang members, such as where they lived and who their relatives are, and later use that information to recruit them. Those who refuse to join are subject to assaults or threats that their relatives will be killed, Conley said.
The link between gang violence and Latin American immigration is unclear, just as is the relationship between terrorism and Muslim migration. However, as stated above, these problems are equally homegrown as they are immigrant-linked, and the likelihood of suffering a terrorist attack is so tiny that it’s considered negligible in the first place. Security and safety is Americans’ primary concern when discussing immigration, and in light of the above analysis, it’s not a very compelling point if we’re arguing to limit immigration, or even if we’re arguing against increasing it.
But if we are arguing to increase immigration, how far can it go? How many people is too many people? Is the concept of open borders unreasonable?
Yes, it is. But not for the reasons you’d think. In the essay I referred to earlier, Nathan Smith imagines an open border scenario where 1 billion people immigrate to the United States, and the issues he believes will arise in such a situation are not related to economics, security, or crime. Rather, the challenges are to the nature of governmental institutions. In order to govern a much larger population, Smith predicts, the US government would necessarily become more authoritarian. Political parties would reinvent themselves to appeal to the values and ideals of a diverse ethnic composition. As a result of self-segregations practices, neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, and community organizations would become significantly more homogenous than the general population as a whole. Government organizations would have difficulty retaining sovereignty over a population so large and diverse. He hypothesizes that employment rates amongst unskilled Americans would decrease, to be increasingly replaced by lifestyles based on “dividends, land rentals, and government subsidies.” America would function much like an empire, in the vein of its Roman and British precedents. It’s political character and cultural value system would crumble.
I determined that long-term financial responsibility––and protective responsibility, too––are largely unthreatened by immigration, at least in the American context. But it seems there might be another type of responsibility––that of historical continuity, of assimilation, of retaining culture and politics as we know it. What might it entail, exactly? And is this the realm where the concept of open borders can justifiably be tethered down?